‘First Reformed’ a technical masterpiece

Image courtesy A24.

9/10 First Reformed is turning heads and starting conversations, and that’s what’ll get you in the door. What’ll keep you on the edge of your seat is a textbook work of art, a film in which every frame is completely perfect.

At a rural historical church somewhere in the Tri-State area, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) has lost the ability to pray. He keeps a nightly journal about his crisis of faith, and will frequently read it as narration over the action of the preceding day. One of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), requests Toller’s help in counseling her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who wants her to terminate their pregnancy because he thinks it would be irresponsible to bring a child to term.

Toller drinks heavily as he writes. He says that he will not allow himself to remove entries in his journal or scratch out even a single word, but each night we see him, he is starting on a blank page, and nothing seems to have been written on the opposite side, casting extreme doubt on his honesty as a narrator. As his physical and mental health deteriorates, he writes and narrates less and less frequently and his onscreen experiences become more and more bizarre.

First Reformed is an absolute masterpiece of visual storytelling. You can tell almost instinctively that this must be the work of a writer/director — veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader — because of how well the visuals and script interact. Everything you see adds context to everything you hear with almost no overlap, and Toller’s narration stacks on top of that as an entirely separate layer of information, none of which are completely trustworthy.

I often say that the best movies are just as good when watched with the sound turned off, but while First Reformed is probably visually the strongest movie out right now, you’d lose a whole other half to the story created by dialogue that works against the camera, rather than with it. As the high-strung drama gracefully transitions into a nightmare of subtle surrealism, incongruities of earlier scenes start to take on more meaning, which should make this an incredibly rich film to re-watch.

Schrader is most famous for writing some of Martin Scorsese’s most important films in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, and First Reformed is being commonly hailed as an updated or more modernized version of Taxi Driver.

I don’t like comparing things to Taxi Driver — it’s done far too often, mostly for superficial reasons — but it’s easy to see why here. Both Toller and Travis Bickle have lost the sense of purpose inherent in their professions as soldiers and vicars, and they allow the uncertainty to drive them to acting on obviously wrong ideas. Explicitly removed from God’s guidance, Toller becomes much more suggestible over the course of First Reformed. He grows disillusioned with his church’s financial situation — the 250 year-old chapel is subsidized by a local megachurch, and exists mostly as a novelty — and fails to reconcile the church’s lack of action on global warming policy with the Christian responsibility to look after God’s creation.

It also reflects starkly back on Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing, as much of his work does.

The film’s overtones are troubling, but ultimately too open to interpretation to alienate anyone. For me, the overall text of First Reformed kind of takes a back seat to how engrossing and masterfully crafted the texture is, and it comes highly recommended on those grounds alone.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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